Infierno – the Spanish world for Hell – is not, you might imagine, the ideal location to encounter a slice of Amazon biodiversity in the eco-friendly comfort of a five-star lodge.
Infierno is the name of an Ese Ejja indigenous community on the banks of the river Tambopata in Peru’s south-eastern Madre de Dios region. So called, say the villagers, because getting here from the regional capital, Puerto Maldonado, downriver, used to be like going to hell and back.
Now it is a lot easier. A small fleet of steel-roofed motor boats ply their way up and down the river taking tourists from the local airport to lodges hidden in the wildlife-rich foliage along its banks in just a few hours. The first company to make this wild frontier accessible to outsiders was Rainforest Expeditions more than 20 years ago.
“Peru is a very stable, solid country nowadays but back in those days we had internal warfare and a cholera outbreak. There was no tourism coming to Peru so it was a pretty radical thing to do!” explains Kurt Holle, the company’s founder.
Holle’s childhood love of bird watching and nature inspired him to work as a rainforest guide and soon led to an investment in a lodge whose first visitors had to sleep on mattresses on the floor.
A few years later in 1996, Rainforest Expeditions became the first company in Peru and the second in South America to engage directly with native communities to develop tourism in the jungle.
Since then, Rainforest Expeditions has grown to be one of Peru’s most successful eco-tourism companies with three lodges; the luxurious Posada Amazonas and Refugio Amazonas and deeper into the forest the Tambopata Research Centre.
All the nearly 200 families in Infierno are shareholders in the lodges and receive an annual dividend which Holle estimates has doubled, tripled or, in some cases, quadrupled the families’ incomes. Elias Durand, the community’s leader says the money also goes towards funding education, health and social assistance.
“Imagine you had to run a business with 200 family and friends? So your mother–in-law’s there, your granny, your cousins and even the guy who sat next to you at school who you really didn’t like,” Holle says, hinting at the complexity of running a business with a village.
It gives the lodge a “competitive advantage”, says Holle, but he often has to make tough decisions; for example choosing one person from the community over another to work in a lodge. Many of the young men and women in Infierno have made a career working in the lodges in hospitality, catering or as wildlife guides. By 2016, Holle wants to hand over one of the lodges to the community giving them a 100% stake in running the business.
“I had this spectacular opportunity to learn about birds and it changed my life”, say Oscar Mishaja, an Infierno resident who has worked as a Rainforest Expeditions wildlife guide for more than a decade. Honing his bird watching skills has led to lucrative work with visiting ornithologists keen to spot some of Peru’s 1,800-plus bird species.
Environmentally destructive illegal gold mining has ballooned since the completion of the 1,600-mile Interoceanic highway which bisects this biodiversity hotspot, linking Peru’s Pacific coast with Brazil’s Atlantic ports. Migrants pour into the region seeking their fortune.
But the Tambopata river, thanks to Holle’s social innovation, has become a wildlife corridor as the local people have a vested interest in keeping gold miners and loggers out. “The lodges are kind of like the corks in bottles. They’ve created a belt of protection,” Holle says. Behind the lodges lie more than a million hectares of pristine rainforest in Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve and the Bahuaja Sonene National Park.
“My indicators are monkeys, macaws and trees, so the fact we use the for-profit model to create conservation units means those things like macaws have more value in their nest or at a clay-lick, as tourist attractions.”
Several Amazon communities want to attract tourists to deter the more destructive economic activities such as logging, mining and single-crop farming, says Holle. They “want to have one foot in the marketplace and one foot in the forest”, without “being exploited or having the market overrun them,” he explains.
He has shown that eco-tourism partnering with indigenous communities works but, he explains, only around 15% of the Peruvian Amazon is accessible. “The rest is just too remote and hard to get to for your average tourist,” he says.
Doing business responsibly in the world’s most biodiverse ecosystem is logisitically challenging and costly. Its people tend to value time and peace of mind more than money so it does not easily slot into the global marketplace.
“The appeal of the Amazon is the same appeal any great wilderness has. As people move into the cities they lose touch with nature, with sunsets, with the river the forest and with animals and they want a vacation. It’s almost like they want to be indigenous people again and that’s our job.”
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